I've written nine books. And for reasons I can't explain any better than the title of this blog post, those books all target the under-18 crowd. I get a lot of cross over with adult readers too, but the marketing teams always deem my books as Young Adult and shelve them accordingly in bookstores.
And I won't lie, I feel better there on those shelves. This is the place I fit in whether I mean to or not. This last weekend I went to the Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium where we discussed science fiction and fantasy. There were four panels on the YA market and the differences between young adult and middle grade literature.
First off, I'd like to tackle the one question asked at all four of the panels: What is the difference between young adult and middle grade? A lot of the answers were things like ages of protagonists, maturity level of content, full on boyfriend/girlfriend relationships or just puppy love. My answer is different. I believe that the determining factor of whether or not your book is for the young adult market or the middle grade market is your marketing team. They will pick the place where your book will sell the best and they will shelve that book accordingly. I know a lot of writers who get hung up on how to categorize their books while creating their query letters, but I am telling you right now to pick the best you can and then not worry about it. That is what a marketing team is for. They'll ultimately take care of it for you, so don't let that be a part of the query letter creation stress.
Another interesting question that came up was: how do you avoid the major stereotypical plot point of the child being orphaned? The answer to this wasn't quite so simple and the reason is that in order to write an effective children's book, you have to empower the children to be able to make their own choices. This means you MUST get the parents out of the way.
Seriously, you have to get rid of the parents because no good mother or father will allow their child to take a perilous journey or quest to save the world or whatever. Mom's are the type of people who insist children go outside with scarves on. They are not the sort of people who say, "Oh here, darling, don't forget your sword. Try not to let the evil destroyer slay you." as she smiles and pats her offspring on the head. Mom's are the types of people who will lock the child in their room and bar all the doors and windows to keep evil out.
The easiest way to remove parental authority is to kill them off. This gives your protagonist a sufficient amount of depth and angst because they're now a sad, misunderstood orphan. But precisely because this is an easy and effective way to remove the parents, it is overused to the point of being one of the worst cliches out there. But what other options are there?
- The child could be an efficient fibber. Mom and Dad don't let you out of the house, so you stretch, yawn, say, "Man am I tired!" as you scamper off to your room and climb out the window. (I'm not endorsing making your protagonists liars. I am simply stating that this is another way to keep from committing literary homicide.)
- Put the parents in peril so the kids have to save them.
- Send the parents on vacation and give kids an incompetent babysitter
- make parents stupid (I personally don't like the idea of the Homer Simpson Parenting Syndrome, but I see how it would work)
- make parents work-a-holics
- Do something really bold and give your protagonist parents who TRUST their child enough to believe in them.
The last question from the conference that was hit on was: Why do you write in this market?
For me the answer is complicated. The fan mail's better. The books are more exciting. But what it comes down to is that I am not afraid of wonder. I love the discovery and newness of life that can be found in the under-18 books. Before people turn 20, they live in a heightened state of emotion. Their feelings are unfathomable, un-chartable, undeniable. I remember finding myself in books when I was young. I remember finding characteristics I wanted to have and incorporating them into my own life. I love the idea of being one of those people who sculpt young minds in preparation for the lives they will live and the world they will one day lead.
And yes, maybe I write there because I am like that one boy who never grows up and live in a perpetual state of immaturity. ah well.